These days, we might be annoyed if we have a leaky faucet. We might be especially annoyed if our sewer line needs repairing. But what about if we had no plumbing at all? Or we had to use outhouses? Or if the city didn’t even have a sewer for our sewer line to connect to?
We’ve got it pretty good, if you think about it. So let’s get a little perspective with our history of plumbing in America.
The history of plumbing in America: plumbing isn’t as old as you think
You might already know, or may have assumed, but the Native Americans had no plumbing system whatsoever. But what’s more remarkable is that they still lived in cities of up to 40,000 people! The city of Cahokia grew to be one of the biggest in pre-Columbian America, and existed for up to eight hundred years between around 600 and 1400 AD.
In cities like Cahokia, archeological evidence suggests that some communities even lived in condo style apartments over a number of stories. But even so, they never invented or considered inventing running water or plumbing. Instead, the people would collect water from the rivers, lakes and wells in the area.
In fairness to the Native Americans, what you might not realise is that nowhere in the world had plumbing at that point! Not in Europe, not in China. In fact, the first running water systems were only re-invented in the last few hundred years. Why do we say re-invented? Because the Romans actually had running water for heating, washing and waste. It only took us almost two thousand years to think that running water might have been a good idea.
The history of plumbing in America: The pilgrims used hollowed out logs for sewerage
So, before we began to use true running water plumbing systems, what did we use? Well, we relied on nature instead. People would connect their houses to nearby streams using hollowed out logs. Each home would have an individual system, just like how each house was built by hand for (or by) the people who lived there. It’s actually a fairly good system, if you compare it to the alternatives: basic cess pits and dumping waste in rivers and lakes by hand.
The logs would work with simple gravity and a bucket of water. Plumbers- or just general handymen, back then- would install logs at an angle so that any waste could easily run off. The idea was so popular that during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, they plumbed the entire White House with hollowed out logs. The only problem was when it was difficult to achieve the necessary grade for the waste to flow out. The logs would begin to stink fairly quickly, as you can imagine, and would become a haven for germs and all sorts of other nasty things.
The history of plumbing in America: The two story outhouse isn’t a myth
You will have definitely seen two story outhouses in cartoons like the Simpsons and Looney Tunes. You probably assumed that they were a joke: how could someone sit in the lower stall without… Well, you get the picture. But they were real, and people really used them. Any ‘waste’ from the top stall would go back behind the first stall through a separate compartment. It would then join the cess pit underneath, just like a normal outhouse. So you never had to plunge your toilet!
You might ask why- the reason is actually simple. Outhouses like these weren’t necessarily just used by one family living in one house. They might be used by two, three or four houses. Anybody who lives at home with their family knows the pain of waiting for the bathroom while someone shaves or does their hair; well, people back then knew all about that too. But with a two story outhouse, you could both see to your business at the same time.
There are still two story outhouses that you can visit across America. One town called Gays, Illinois is particularly proud of theirs. So proud, in fact, that they composed a rhyme for a nearby billboard:
In England they have urinals
In Paris bidets
But nowhere on earth
Has an outhouse like Gays.
The history of plumbing in America: Salt Lake City had a population of 45,000 before they built a sewer
Salt Lake City, out in the mid west, sits on the Great Salt Lake basin- hence the name. It was built to order in 1847 by Brigham Young, the spiritual head of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and lies next to what was christened the Jordan River. Unfortunately for Brigham Young, and unfortunately for the people of Salt Lake City, the town planners didn’t think to install a sewerage system before they began building the city!
The first cities to install sewers, like London and Paris, faced the unhappy dilemma of having to build underneath the city that was already there. Salt Lake City had it easy, but still decided it was best to let everything drain into the River Jordan instead. By 1890, the city grew to the population of 45,000. At this point, the sights, sounds and smells of open sewage clogging the river were becoming too much to bear, so the town council decided to finally install a sewerage system.
The only problem with their new system was that it still ran into the Jordan River, which still flowed into the Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake, big as it was and still is, is what’s called a terminal lake: it doesn’t flow anywhere. That’s why it’s so salty. All the collective sewage of 40, then 50 and then 80,000 people was flowing into the lake with nowhere to go. Not good if you were planning a boating trip.